Nervous Nellie

I’ve had anxiety most (if not all) of my life. Some of my earliest memories are anxiety-laden:

  • sitting in my father’s car while he was outside talking to my uncle, feeling worried about being alone in the car
  • in elementary school, feeling worried about a state project due in May…during the month of December
  • the night before I turned 10, feeling intense worry that I would never be 9 years old again

I could go on and on.

There were times in my life when my worry worsened. A few weeks to months each year during my childhood when I would be exponentially worried – we began to call these episodes “La Etapa” (a stage of my life). I remember the worry intensifying in high school. I moved to a new school district during my freshman year and I would feel intense dread in the morning when people loitered by their lockers since I didn’t (really) know anyone. I remember hiding in the bathroom during this time, as this was preferable to socializing. I experienced intense anxiety during freshman year of college- fear of meeting new people/would I fit in/etc. I drank too much and gained a ton of weight which only made things worse. My anxiety worsened in medical school, especially on rotations where I had less control over my schedule/time. One way of dealing with my anxiety was through food restriction and overexercising – I could have control over one area of my life, even when everything else was in disarray. I started dieting in high school, so that need has been there for a long time.

I did speak to a few people during these years. In college, someone tipped off a counselor that I may have an eating disorder, and so I started seeing her. She would weigh me facing backyards so that I couldn’t see how much I weighed. I lost more weight when I stopped weighing myself because I was afraid of gaining weight, so clearly the anxiety was still there. I then met with a psychiatrist in medical school, during my surgical rotation, because I was incredibly moody and would break down over the smallest things. I remember running to the first appointment so that I wouldn’t miss my workout that day. He started me on Celexa. I took this for a few weeks, maybe 1-3 months max? My husband (boyfriend at the time) thought it helped, but I wasn’t so sure and stopped shortly after starting. The third time I reached out to get help was when I was struggling with infertility due to hypothalamic amenorrhea. I met with a therapist a few times near my residency program, pretty much crying the entire time through those sessions. That also did not last long.

Why did I “quit” so many times? Probably because I have pretty high-functioning anxiety. It never stopped me from accomplishing my goals or having (mostly) healthy relationships. It’s an ever present background hum, but in many ways it has driven me to succeed. I excelled in school, attended an Ivy League college, graduated medical school and matched into a competitive residency. In other words, even though I personally suffered, my goals did not. I was still able to interact normally with others, connect with/take great care of my patients, and perform daily activities with little interference. However, I have recently started wondering whether things could actually be better. For years, I thought being thin had led me to succeed. Part of the fear of gaining weight was that I would lose everything I had worked for. This was obviously a lie I had been telling myself and the world did not end when I gained weight. And so I started thinking: what if life could actually be better with my anxiety under better control? What would it be like to live in the moment, to not have the ever present buzz of worry, to not feel imminent doom over every little thing?

The other tipping point was this: my 4 year old has started to show signs of anxiety and it is heart-breaking. Yes, it could be hereditary. My whole family deals with anxiety, so maybe it would have been passed on anyway. But I also wonder whether an anxious milieu of the womb or anxious parenting (my husband, too, would factor in here; although normally a very calm person, he is quite an anxious parent) had any effect. I feel intense guilt over this. Although I can’t change anything I’ve done, at the very least I can do my very best to control my anxiety as my kids begin to grow and understand more.

Finally, I think it will be good for my marriage. My husband and I love each other dearly, but our differing personalities (mine characterized by anxiety) have definitely led to some repetitive arguments.

And so I scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist specializing in women’s health, particularly around birth and motherhood. I met with her last week and she agreed I had generalized anxiety disorder and recommended three pillars of treatment:

  1. Medication
  2. Psychotherapy
  3. Self care

She said we could do any combination, so I am started with medication and trying to incorporate self care into my life. I opted for medication because, if I am truly honest with myself, I am dog-tired. I’m tired of always worrying about everything, of making to-do list after to-do list, of constantly playing out scenarios in my head. It is absolutely exhausting. And I want to get better as fast as possible. My father, a psychiatrist, always said that medication could be incredibly helpful to patients, to normalize their brain chemistry while they utilized psychotherapy to change their thought patterns. I picked up Zoloft right after the appointment and felt a huge sense of relief as I swallowed it. Obviously all of my feelings were still there, but I was relieved to finally be doing something about it.

I am holding off on psychotherapy for now because of the time commitment, but I am trying to do some self care. My family is in town this weekend so it’s a wonderful opportunity. I am taking the time to write this, and I also scheduled a couples massage for this evening. In the past week I’ve made time for mom/baby yoga and a stroller workout class.

And so I am trying and hoping for the very best outcome here.

What I Ate Wednesday

When I had an eating disorder, I would relieve the anxiety of said eating disorder by writing down all of the things I had eaten that day, or was going to eat that day. I would be in lecture – college, medical school, residency – and start scribbling on the side of my notes: banana 100 calories, cereal 120 calories, soymilk 80 calories…and on and on and on. I would write different permutations depending on what I thought I would eat that day. I had most foods memorized by caloric content and was pretty proud of that fact.

I would also read a lot of blogs by people who had “recovered” from disordered eating or who were advocates of “healthy eating”. These blogs would undoubtedly have a What I Ate Wednesday (or WIAW) feature. These bloggers would write things like “spoonful of dark chocolate chips” or “tablespoon of cashew butter” to show how indulgent they were in their eating. All of it was insane.

I also remember thinking: “After I have kids, I’ll still eat healthy and work out. I won’t let myself go!” Well, that was also an insane thought, because I can barely manage to pack a lunch these days, much less make sure that it’s nutritionally sound.

And so I thought it would be interesting to write down what I really ate today, this Wednesday, mostly as a parody but also so that if anyone with disordered eating or hypothalamic amenorrhea were to read this, they would hopefully realize that most people don’t measure out what they eat, and that’s actually normal.

Breakfast: I have no idea. I know, this is a terrible way to start WIAW. But the main point here is: when you don’t obsess about eating all day, it actually takes quite a bit of effort to think about what you ate. I know I drank coffee w/ soymilk (Yes, coffee is not great during pregnancy, but I just now in the second trimester starting craving it again and only have 6-8 oz on the days that I do drink it). Oh wait, now I remember: a scone from Trader Joe’s – not sure what type.

Lunch: PB&J sandwich, Strawberry Fage yogurt

Mid-afternoon snack: biscotti, hot chocolate, apple

Dinner: tortilla chips, TJ’s meatless patties x 2, baked oven fries, bites of the veggie burgers I made for my kids. Most of this was eaten standing up.

Dessert: chocolate chip cookie, vanilla ice cream

The best part about having recovered from disordered eating is that I can write everything down and feel nothing – no joy if I ate “well”, disappointment if I ate “badly”. That list is just facts. I don’t feel good or bad about it, and that’s an incredibly liberating feeling. Honestly, there was a time in my life when I thought that I would never feel that sense of freedom around eating. I feel so fortunate to have overcome it and hope that anyone struggling with disordered eating will soon overcome it as well.

My nanny is drinking pregnancy tea

This hurts my heart because she’s preparing for her second round of IVF and I feel like a terrible person for having two children already and now being pregnant with a third (and I haven’t told her about this yet, although I’m pretty sure she’s figured it out). It hurts my heart because I remember those days very vividly – wondering why everyone seemed to get pregnant so easily and why it was taking me forever. What was wrong with me? Would I ever be a mother? I wore fertility bracelets, temped, took supplements, checked CM, joined a yoga for fertility group, set up a meditation corner in my bedroom to relieve stress, started acupuncture, and on and on and on. And I think: how much harder would it have been if my job was to take care of small children? And how conflicting it must be when that job is paying for your opportunity to have your own child.

In addition to my nanny, I haven’t told a lot of people I’m pregnant yet, but there are two people in particular who I should have told but I have not. They are very dear friends to me. One recently miscarried in her first trimester after deciding to have a second child, and the second is undergoing her second round of IVF, having failed a first in an attempt to have a second chid. I should have told them, but didn’t know how to break the news directly after they announced what they had been through. And, to be honest, distance and our busy lives make it easy to evade. But I am 15 weeks tomorrow, so it’s time. And eventually I’ll need to tell my nanny, who likely already knows. I only hope that in a few weeks to months she shares the news that she’s expecting as well.

No longer a salad person

Tonight, we had dinner at a local pub. We sat tables across from my son’s classmate (their family is not very friendly, so this seating was unfortunate). The mom, who is quite slim, ordered a salad and picked at it. For a second, I looked down at my forkfuls of mac n’ cheese (swiped from my kids), veggie burger (I have been vegetarian for 2 decades), and french fries, and felt a bit ashamed. But then I remembered the days of being a salad person, and was overwhelmed with happiness that I am no longer a salad person.

Disclaimer: people who eat salads are good people. And salads are good for you. My concern is with being the type of person who would only order “salad, no bread, and dressing on the side, please” and then lose her shit if the dressing was accidentally mixed into the salad or someone dared throw a bread crumb in there. Or someone who spent 2 hours on the elliptical in college because she had “eaten too much” the day before and then headed to the cafeteria mid-day to eat her one meal of the day – salad.

In college, there was a painfully thin blonde freshman with wavy hair and glasses. All she ate was salad. We (including everyone with an eating disorder who didn’t actually think they had an eating disorder) called her Salad Girl. She would buy two trays full of just greens with nothing on them. Then she would work out next to me on the elliptical for 2 hours. There was a 30 minute limit for the elliptical (a popular machine if you have an eating disorder because you can “work out” while still exerting minimal effort since you’re always running on empty) so we would all sign up with different names. This was in the pre-everything-online days so we had to sign in by hand or call the night before. So if you were signing up twice you had to call twice and make sure you waited a while (sometimes hours) so the front desk wouldn’t catch on. But of course other people would see you on the elliptical for that long and realize you were not both Bridget and Amy.

I am so happy to no longer be a salad girl. Sometimes, I think the pendulum swung the other way – my diet is not the best at the moment. But I try to have a few healthy things sprinkled here and there, and mostly I do my best. And I count my blessings that I am no longer counting every calorie, obsessing over every bite, and mapping out the details of every workout – that shit was exhausting.

If you are struggling with food restriction, I don’t have any great advice for you, but I do want you to feel hopeful that your life will not always be this way. I never imagined I could live the way I do now – but here I am! One day the switch just flipped. The main reason I had an eating disorder was because I thought I needed it to succeed. I thought being thin was the ticket to career advancement, finding a man, getting married, having a family, and owning a white picket fence. I held on to that fantasy for dear life. And then when I was told I had to gain weight if I wanted to get pregnant, I panicked. But what about the rest of my life!? The amazing thing was this: when I gained weight, my life did change – it improved. My career went on, I stayed married, I had children, I bought that white picket fence, and, most importantly, I freed myself from the intense anxiety of choosing french fries over salad.

For the record, I now choose french fries 95% of the time, and despite owning an elliptical, I rarely use it.

 

Trying to conceive

My two attempts at becoming pregnant went something like this:

Pregnancy #1: Got married, starting trying to conceive (TTC), started to think that I most likely had hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA), was diagnosed with HA, underwent fertility treatment and became pregnant almost 21 months after we started trying. Those are the facts. The reality is that it was an emotional rollercoaster – hope, anxiety, disappointment, anger, sadness. And most of all, terrible fear that I would never be able to have a child.

Pregnancy #2: Oldest was 11 months, period came back naturally (hurrah), and the next month it didn’t come. I naturally thought my HA had returned (especially because I had a negative pregnancy test at 35 days), but I was actually pregnant. Second hurrah! I literally had to do nothing and I pretty much worried 0% about getting pregnant that time around.

And now, here I am. 16 months post-partum (!) and I had expected to be pregnant by now. Although I initially thought my second should have a few more months of being the baby than my first did, I really did want them fairly close together. But now, if we do get pregnant, my last two would be >2 years apart. This bothers me.

It probably bothers me because I am a Type A person and want everything my way. But it also bothers me because I am afraid that maybe it will not be easy for me to become pregnant again. I’m conflicted on this point. First, I feel somewhat selfish for wanting a third child. Is this normal? I have two perfectly healthy children! Our lives are FULL. It’s not like we have oodles of time to fit a third child into the mix. I think about people who are going through infertility struggles for the first time, and I feel terrible for having this blessing and wanting more. How greedy of me! Second, it’s giving me more time to think about logistics, and I don’t want to be dissuaded from our decision to have a third. Financially, emotionally, etc., does it make sense to have a third child?

What it boils down to is this: if we can’t become pregnant naturally (and if we are not able to, I am not sure that I know the reason because I am nowhere in HA land and cycling naturally), would we go down the infertility work-up/treatment road? I don’t know the answer to that.

But this third attempt is bringing up a lot of emotions from my first attempt, and the synopsis of my month is as follows:

Week 1: period is here, wah(!), lots of negative emotions closely followed by attempts at positive thinking and planning for the upcoming cycle (fertility window is X and baby would be born on Y)

Week 2: TTC

Week 3: More TTC, then the 2 week wait begins. This week feels like the calm before the storm – anything is possible but nothing can be done to change what’s coming down the pipeline.

Week 4: Time to type every symptom into Google to see whether it could herald a pregnancy (AND I’m a doctor AND I’m been pregnant twice!). Is nasal congestion a sign of pregnancy? How about back pain? Cramping? Bloating? What about spotting for 5 days…oh wait, that’s just my period.

And the cycle starts again. What else can I say except that it sucks. I think about myself ~5 years ago, feeling so dejected and low. I remember sitting on my “meditation” mat where I was supposed to relax with incense and practice Yoga for Fertility, except I was sobbing. It was a hard, hard time. This time, it is not as hard because the stakes are lower and part of me does feel crazy for wanting to add a third to the chaos of my life. I also do feel incredibly fortunate to be cycling naturally (without birth control) for the first time since high school!

But I am still sitting here wondering whether the new acne I’ve noticed and the low-grade back pain I’m experiencing could have anything to do with pregnancy…and what will I do next week if it is instead a sign of my period?

My experience with hypothalamic amenorrhea

I started reading blogs when I began to suspect that I had hypothalamic amenorrhea (HA), so it is only fitting that one of my first posts should touch on the subject.

First, some background for readers who are not familiar with HA. Amenorrhea is the absence of menses. It can be divided into primary (a person never menstruates) or secondary (a person who previously menstruated stops menstruating). Secondary amenorrhea can develop when any of the structures involved in the menstrual cycle (hypothalamus, pituitary, ovary, or uterus) are affected. Hypothalamic amenorrhea with no pathologic basis can be triggered by nutritional deficiencies (including eating disorders), excessive exercise, and/or stress.

I developed hypothalamic amenorrhea because I ate too little and exercised too much. For many years, I focused excessively on what I ate and how much I exercised. I counted calories, drafted lists of my daily intake, and worked out 5-7 days a week. Not for a week, not for a month, but for YEARS. Approximately 10 years to be exact. I stopped menstruating 1.5-2 years into this routine, which means that for 8-8.5 years I did nothing to reverse it. I am not proud of that.

It is important for me to back up a bit and detail how this came to be, as it was never my intent to sabotage my fertility. My initial goals of eating clean and exercising regularly were borne out of a genuine desire to be “healthy”. I was a freshman in college and not feeling particularly great about many things – where I fit in socially, the freshman 15, my utter lack of exercise, being away from home, and my future career aspirations. So I tackled what I could: eating better, exercising more, and focusing on my pre-medical training. At first, it was wonderful! I started eating better, hitting the gym daily, sleeping more, waking up early, performing better academically, and feeling good about myself. But true to form, I didn’t stop at good. 5 pounds became 10, 15, 20, 25…I ultimately lost 60 pounds over the course of one year.

The thing is, I didn’t have 60 pounds to lose. I also became incredibly anxious about gaining the weight back. So when I stopped menstruating, my response was not “Hmm…I should ease up on exercise and gain some weight.” I was terrified to gain weight, and indeed gained only enough weight to shift the focus one iota from my excessive loss. And for the next nine years, that weight became my “norm”. As I distanced myself from college, everyone I met assumed that I had always been so slim. This made it harder and harder to gain weight.

I knew that my lack of menstrual cycle was a sign that something was wrong, but I didn’t want to dwell on that. I ignored the worry when we learned about the female athlete triad in college, when the nurse I saw at the student health center ordered a bone density test based on my low BMI, when my gynecologist checked labs and confirmed what I already suspected: I wasn’t ovulating. It gnawed at me, but I ignored it because I was 19 years old and the only thing I knew about pregnancy at the time was that I didn’t want it. What I did want was to continue fitting into a size zero.

Here’s the deal: if you don’t fuel your body correctly and if you then ask your poorly fueled body to draw from its reserves to exercise, it may shut down your reproductive system. And that’s exactly what happened. I remember my gynecologist recommending birth control pills and then saying that I would possibly need fertility treatments in the future if the amenorrhea persisted. We didn’t discuss my undereating and overexercising (I do not blame this on the gynecologist as I am fairly certain I did everything in my power to downplay how much I was exercising and to normalize my weight) and I went about my merry way, which is to say that I did nothing other than start birth control.

Fast-forward those nine years. I had graduated college, graduated medical school, and was a resident. I had gained a handful of pounds since my lowest weight in college, but my BMI was still low and I ate less than I should for the amount that I exercised. I was getting married and had stopped my birth control pill because I wanted to see whether I would menstruate on my own, since I knew that I wanted to get pregnant shortly after the wedding. To no one’s surprise, I did not get my period.

Four years and two babies later, I can still feel the raw frustration and immense sadness I felt during this time. How was it fair that bone-thin celebrities and acquaintances had managed to conceive without gaining weight? How was it fair that some women in the HA community were able to begin menstruating by only minimally decreasing their exercise and just barely increasing their weight? I fought against the “decrease exercise/increase weight” advice SO hard. I wanted to believe that it was stress (I was a resident after all) and turned to yoga, meditation, breathing exercises. I added “healthy fats” to my diet but only incrementally decreased my exercise. I had maintained my weight loss for nine years and resisted gaining weight, believing that it would negate all of my hard work.

However, my resolve wavered with each month that passed without a period. It was a confusing time and I felt torn between two forces – my long-standing commitment to what I had perceived as healthy (working out, eating “clean”, being thin) and my desire to become a mother. I slowly let the pounds pile on – at first, slowly and with remorse, and later quickly and without hesitation. I would plan my meals and then rebel, knowing that I was still adhering to rules. My main form of exercise at the time was long distance running, so I stopped. I would sign up for races, train irregularly, and then cancel. I joined different gyms and then willed myself to sleep in. I stopped waking up at 5:00 am to work out. The pounds piled on and I finally forced myself to buy new clothes. I donated bags full of clothing that no longer fit: I needed them visually out of my closet and physically out of my life as I didn’t want to be tempted to fit into them again.

During this time, multiple co-workers asked me whether I was pregnant. They were used to my being very thin and health-conscious, so pregnancy was a logical assumption as they observed my weight gain. Their questions were doubly insulting: first, they confirmed that others noticed I was gaining weight (this horrified me) and, second, they forced me to answer “no” when I was dying to answer “yes”, to actually be pregnant. My heart would break every time someone asked me whether we were planning to start a family. I know they meant no harm, but I wish they would have thought twice about prying. To this day, I never ask anyone about their plans to start (or expand) a family and I never ask anyone whether they are pregnant – not even if they are very obviously 9 months pregnant.

At the time, it also felt like everyone I knew was becoming pregnant. I was genuinely thrilled for my friends, family, and acquaintances, but I would also cry whenever I had to attend a baby shower or congratulate yet another person. I am sure that my husband dreaded announcing someone’s pregnancy to me.

During the time that I was struggling to gain weight, rein in my exercise, and feel good in my newly expanded skin, I was referred by a new gynecologist to a fertility clinic. At this point, the diagnosis of hypothalamic amenorrhea had been confirmed by ruling out some other entities via laboratory testing and imaging studies. The first fertility specialist I saw said this: I could stop running and gain weight or I could undergo intrauterine insemination. I agreed with his exercise and weight gain recommendations, but our personalities didn’t jive and I wanted to minimize interventions, so I sought a second opinion from someone else in the same practice.

This fertility specialist was my saving grace. He was a kind, gentle man with a wonderful bedside manner. He had been in the business for years and had an optimistic perspective. He also did not push any interventions. I recall him sitting patiently during our appointments and answering all of my nervous questions. One day, he sat across from me and gently said: “This must be a very difficult experience for you – wanting to become pregnant, living far away from your husband [we lived 8 hours away from one another during my medical training], enduring the stress of residency.” I burst out crying. It felt like he truly understood what I was going through. He also provided a bright glimmer of hope when he told me that I was not infertile but SUBfertile. He believed that I would have a baby and I believed him.

I have noticed a lot of doctor-bashing in the HA world: doctors not understanding the diagnosis of HA, not counseling on weight gain/exercise cessation, pushing interventions to make money, not listening, etc. As a physician in the world of Google Medicine, I wonder whether some of this is unfair. Going through any type of infertility (or sub-fertility, as it may be) is an inherently emotional process that can taint our perception. There is also an urgency to it – and this may create dissatisfaction in a system that necessitates testing to rule out other entities, awaiting a specialty consult, multiple procedures, etc. Since there is no specific test that can attribute HA to exercise and eating habits, other diagnoses need to be “ruled out” before this can be “ruled in”. Even then, there is no test that 100% proves causation. I would like to think that doctors are educated in this complex realm and are providing the best possible assessment and treatment to these women. That being said, I recognize that my own perception is biased due to my truly wonderful, attentive, and supportive fertility specialist.

So what did I do? How did I finally become pregnant? When I had HA, I was constantly looking for the magic formula – just how much weight would I need to gain? How much exercise was too much? The truth is, everyone is so very different and there is no one size fits all “solution”.

To this day, I joke with my husband that I became pregnant after purchasing this bracelet. I did, but I also reduced my exercise dramatically (from 5-7x/wk to maybe 1-2x/wk), gained 30-35 pounds, slept in, practiced yoga (including Yoga for Fertility), started acupuncture, and underwent 4 cycles of clomiphene citrate and 1 cycle of letrozole. It was on that fifth cycle that I became pregnant with my first. I sometimes still think of him as my letrozole baby.

However, the most important (and most difficult) change I made was to stop caring about my weight. This was a slow and painful process. Letting go of the pressure and anxiety to be thin was hard. It feels so silly for me to say this now as I truly can’t believe that I spent so much time obsessing about something so trivial, especially with all of the very real problems in the world. Yet at the time, it was strangely important to me, and overcoming that mindset took strength and perseverance.

I loved being pregnant and I love being a mother. Every moment of pregnancy (x2!)and every moment of motherhood has been all the sweeter because there was a time when I truly doubted whether I would be able to have a baby. I know that I was very fortunate: I didn’t battle infertility for longer than 2 years, it was (relatively) rapidly reversible, and only minimal intervention was necessary. I was spared the financial and emotional consequences of undergoing more invasive fertility treatments. But any degree of infertility (or sub-fertility) takes its toll, and my heart truly goes out to everyone currently going through it.

After my first pregnancy, I never resumed working out regularly. I would exercise sporadically here and there (a slow run/walk, a family hike, a yoga class, a stroller work0ut), but never with the same intensity and commitment. My reasons were varied: I experienced “working mom guilt” and didn’t want to spend time away from work at the gym when I could be with my baby, sleep deprivation/low energy, fear of affecting my milk supply/production, and the desire to have another baby soon after the birth of my first. I also worried about whether I could truly exercise in moderation. Despite this, I lost my pregnancy weight quickly while eating everything under the sun. I also regained my cycle at almost 11 months postpartum (while still nursing) and was pregnant a month later with no medical intervention.

If you are struggling with HA, please know that there is so much hope on the horizon! There are also a number of wonderful resources out there, including:

  1. Nico’s blog is a must-read. There is a wonderful community of women formed around it, and also a book.
  2. This lovely endocrinologist’s post, linking to her personal experience
  3. Ashley’s older blog posts
  4. Janae’s perspective

And do feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I am by no means an expert in this field, but I can certainly commiserate.